In the Dark: An Interview With Carl Broemel

It took him six years to make, but My Morning Jacket's Carl Broemel drew from surprising personal places to craft his latest solo effort.
Carl Broemel
4th of July
Stocks in Asia

Very few would dispute My Morning Jacket’s credentials as being one of the most important alternative groups of the ’00s. Though his band may be a household name, Carl Broemel may not mean much to those outside of the Jacket faithful. In essence, however, the band’s lead guitarist epitomizes everything that we have come to associate with My Morning Jacket: attention to his craft and a penchant for collaboration.

Yet for all his Jacket-induced passion, the process of creating Broemel’s new solo record, 4th of July, was far from what is typical for the acclaimed five-piece. Recorded over several years during breaks from his Jacket commitments, Broemel is aware that it would have been easy to have let the album fall by the wayside. This is especially true when considering how given the Indiana native is to thinking about the impacts music has had on his personal life.

He is clear, however, that working on the solo album was hardly a gruelling task, and that all his musical work is informed by one simple ideal: fun. Broemel maintains that, “if it ended up not being fun, I wouldn’t do it.” That’s not to say that, 4th of July is rooted in hedonism or indulgence; in fact, Broemel has attempted to deal with the tumultuous pattern of life on this record, coupled with an always positive outlook on the world around him.

PopMatters sat down with Broemel to talk about music outside of My Morning Jacket and the colourful stories that he has collected on the way to releasing his third solo album.

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You’ve said that you recorded 4th of July over a long period of time, but aside from that, what were the main differences between the process of making the record and making a My Morning Jacket record?

Well [laughs] a lot. It was sort of something I’d do on downtime. I did it in really short spurts. A lot of the time when Jacket gets together, we do it in large gestures; we’ll book a month of studio time or whatever, and you can really get lost in it in a good way in booking out that much time. For my schedule, sometime I’d write a small batch of songs and we’d go into the studio for two days and record as many of them as we could, and then maybe not listen to them for a few months [laughs] and then I’d get home from tour or vacation and listen to them and go, “OK, I like that one, let’s keep working on that one.”

So I think just being able to take lots of breaks in between working on [the album] was probably the main difference compared to the approach we’ve taken as a band. I did end up roping in Tom [Blankenship] and Bo [Koster, both of My Morning Jacket] to play on the album. Bo and I wrote a few of the songs together. Jim [James] is the songwriter of My Morning Jacket, so our job there is to help get those songs the way he envisages them, or try to add something to them.

I don’t claim to be some incredible songwriter or anything but I’ve always done it, even before I met the other four guys, I was experimenting with recording my own music, so to me this is just a continuation of who I was already. Obviously musical brothers that we are [in My Morning Jacket], our influences start to combine. We influence each so other, so I think that has influenced this record … just being around these guys and playing for ten years together. I’d say those are the main differences.

Did it ever become constricting to not have ample time in the studio when you were working on this record?

No, not really. For me, I need a deadline. I literally won’t have songs done until I can say, “OK I have a week, I’m going to book two days in the studio with some friends and see what we can come up with.” So it’s very low expectation. There’s hardly any money at stake because the studio’s cheap and it’s more of an experimental thing. I’m just trying to explore it, just trying to explore what songs I can write and how I can record them.

I really love being in the studio, I absolutely love it, as much or more than being on stage sometimes, just because it’s like you’re giving birth to something, you’re watching it come out. My motives are pretty pure when it comes to the solo project; when I have time I do it, and when if we have fun, I do it more. If it ended up not being fun I wouldn’t do it. But I think it turned out pretty cool.

The last song I recorded was “Snowflake”, and once I recorded that song it bumped a couple of other songs that were going to being on the record off of it, and then it felt like an album. So now we’re putting it out!

You mentioned that there were some songs that were cut from the album. Considering that this album was compiled over such a long time, do you think we can expect those songs to appear on a later record?

Potentially. Maybe if they were re-vamped. I don’t know. One of the things about this record is that the song “4th of July” is ten minutes long, so in order to get it to fit on the vinyl, I literally could not have put another song on. It wouldn’t have sounded good. It was kind of cool though because it forced me to be done. It’s a cool record though, I like each song individually and I like them collectively and … I could agonize over it for another four years, but it wouldn’t get any better. [laughs]

I read somewhere that your career in music has led you to question your priorities and the pattern of life in general. How have you gone about trying to find answers to those questions in the process of making this album?

You know I’m not sure if I’ve really taken my own advice [laughs] as far as getting priorities completely straight. The thing I’ve been doing when I’m home with my family is to really, really try to unplug from anything music and career-oriented, and make the time at home quality time. Because it’s never really going to be quantity. I don’t know, I ended up getting more busy this year even though the record was kind of about stepping away from making music.

The Jacket is my main love, we all love it so much, but we also make an effort to spend time at home and spend time exploring other things. When we come back, we’re able to find some kind of new freshness to the relationship, and for me, this album has led me to learn so much about what I’m capable of and what makes me happy.

A couple of things happened last record cycle where I lost a really good friend of mine kind of unexpectedly and I was missing things … it kind of makes me feel sick to my stomach, just not being around for those things. I was just in my own bubble, and I needed to wake up and plug back into the important stuff. Not to neglect touring or anything, touring isn’t a grueling thing, I mean I love it so much, but it becomes a little bit of a bubble that you have to make sure you crack open and look out of a lot. Otherwise you just get lost in time and ten years go by and you’re like “Wow, I’m still on the road.”

Was there ever a specific moment where that realization clicked?

I think it was just coming home from a tour and being in the car on the way home from the airport, and I found out the next day that my friend had passed away that evening. I just felt stupid because I’d given it some thought but I hadn’t really been with it. I felt horrible. I felt like a ghost.

But in general touring is fun. If it wasn’t fun most of the time we wouldn’t do it I don’t think. But that particular day was just a rough one. It inspired a song.

Is that song on this record?

Yeah. It’s called “Landing Gear”.

You worked with Neko Case on this album. What led to that collaboration?

For her last record, she reached out and asked me to put a guitar solo on the song “City Swans”. She was working with my friend Tucker [Martine, producer] who’s worked on the last couple of My Morning Jacket records. So anyway I did that for her, and then I was like, “Hey I’m working on a solo record, would you be down to sing some day?” and she was like, “Of course, no problem.” Then 18 months later, I was sitting down with Teddy [Morgan, producer and engineer for this album] and he said “Man it’d be great if we could get Neko or an incredible female voice on this” and I was like “Let me text her!”

So I sent the song … I think getting people to be able to collaborate with you long distance is one of the best parts of recording digitally. It’s awesome. To not really all be in the same place but get to work on music together is really cool.

I did the same thing with Laura Veirs, Tucker’s wife. She sang on “Rockingchair Dancer”, and my friend Shelly Colvin sang on “4th of July” as well. But I started getting addicted to it, I was like “Wow, this is so great to have someone else contribute.” It made it so much cooler than if it was just three layers of Carl. [laughs] So I think that really enhanced the record. For me it just made it fun to have more people involved and make it a social engagement almost. It makes it more fun.

You grew up with a father who was a professional classical musician and you have experience playing the saxophone yourself. Can we hear any of those more classically leaning influences on this record?

Maybe. I did play sax on two songs. So that’s there. There’s a song called, “Crawlspace” which is kind of a fingerpicking guitar piece. It’s a little more jazzy sounding. I was trying to make it sound like a Thelonious Monk piano piece. I did study that in college, I studied classical guitar. So playing finger-style guitar is on there.

I’ve always had my feet in two boats; I’ve always been into rock ‘n’ roll and classical music as well, but not so much jazz. I’m not exactly sure what’s come out of the classical realm. My dad played on my last record, he played clarinet. He played on the song that I took off this record unfortunately so he’s not on this one. He’s retired from playing now, I think he’s sold all his wind instruments, so it may be too late to get the bassoon on it.

What orchestra did he play with, out of interest?

He played in the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra in Indiana for 27 years. So I spent my childhood going to see concerts and hear him play.

Obviously 4th of July ties in with the American national day, but why did you choose to name the album 4th of July?

It just came out when I was writing that song. The song “4th of July” is about me coming from college in the summers in Indiana and having to find a job and trying to figure out what to do, and getting in to trouble with my friends, driving around, and just sort of being a little bit lost in the summer. To me, the analogy of the 4th of July is that all of a sudden, out of the void or out of nothing, something incredible can happen. That’s kind of how life is; you never know what’s about to happen, good or bad.

But it’s super magical when it does. When you meet a woman or a man or whoever, and all of a sudden your entire mental landscape can change in an instant. To me, that’s what the 4th of July is like. You’re sitting waiting for the fireworks to begin and then when it starts, you can’t helped but be overwhelmed by it. So that’s kind of what it means.

It’s not necessarily about independence or nationalism. It was more just about me being at a small fireworks display in rural Indiana in the summer and watching the fireworks and falling in love with a girl at the same time. And just being like “Wow I was so bummed out yesterday, now I’m stoked” [laughs], and just thinking that that can happen at any point. That’s how crazy life is.

Is there a kind of nostalgia tied up with the album as a whole?

Yeah a little bit. The song, “Rockingchair Dancer”, is sort of about being really young and having dreams and then having the reality of what your life ends up being. It’s a bit of a nostalgic song. One thing that ‘s really interesting and cool for me is that the front cover picture, it kind of looks like me, but it’s not, it’s my aunt, who was a photographer. She didn’t take the picture, I think my grandmother took the picture, but that’s my aunt going to art school in France.

She’s leaving on a boat from New York, so she was going off to pursue her artistic dreams and go to Paris when you had to take a boat. [laughs] And I think having the Statue of Liberty kind of spurred me on. It kind of all ties it together, but I kind of just love that she developed that photo. She passed away when I was 16 or something. I’ve always missed her, so it’s always been nice to have that photo. That was a pretty nostalgic part of the project for me, putting the artwork together with that photo

It sounds like you were in pretty good creative company in your family with a musician for a father and an artist for an aunt!

Yeah it’s definitely in the blood. My grandparents were both musicians; my grandmother was a pianist and piano teacher and my grandfather was a music librarian at a movie theater in Chicago. He also worked at the radio station in Chicago, and played violin and bassoon.

It was intense being a kid, my dad had to really open his mind to what I was into, because I was into rock ‘n’ roll. He didn’t really understand it, he even admits it, he was like “After Elvis, I don’t have any idea about what’s happening.” [laughs] So he had to be open-minded and get to it and explore it.

You’ve already released two singles from the record, “Sleepy Lagoon” and “In The Dark”. What made you want to release those two?

We just kind of looked at it and thought that “Sleepy Lagoon” … I don’t know. I really don’t know. I’ll tell you this though, we couldn’t release the song “4th of July” because it’s too long, and we weren’t allowed at iTunes to do a pre-release that was over eight minutes, so that ruled that song out, so there’s seven songs left. One’s an instrumental, one’s super mellow and kind of at the end, and you don’t want people to hear the last song first.

I really wish I could just release the whole thing at once, so I thought that we might as well have people hear the first song first, so I guess that’s why we released “Sleepy Lagoon”.

It’s kind of cool though, I mean that’s one of the best things about having other people working for you, because when they have a question like, “Which song do you think is the catchiest song?” I’ll be like, “I don’t know,” and they’ll say, “How about this one?”